What New Jersey’s mostly unchanged legislature says about Chris Christie’s presidential prospects

Chris Christie speakingNew Jersey Gov. Chris Christie routed his Democratic opponent by more than 22 points on election night two weeks ago. In a state with a Democratic net 7 point advantage, Christie outperformed the generic party divide by a colossal 29 points. As a result of Christie’s electoral domination, a growing chorus within the media and GOP establishment expresses confidence that Christie could lead the Republican Party to national victory as its presidential nominee.

Once the euphoria fades, however, a review of precedent suggests otherwise.

Any fanciful hopes of GOP predominance with Christie at the helm must be tempered by the lessons learned from the gubernatorial victories of former Govs. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.)  and Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.). Although both moderate Republicans racked up outsized wins, both failed to breathe life into their state party organizations. And neither Romney nor Schwarzenegger succeeded in making lasting, significant reforms in state fiscal matters.

Consider that in 2002, the Democrats enjoyed a 21-point party identification lead in Massachusetts — a lead three times as large as the Democratic advantage in New Jersey today. Yet, Mitt Romney managed to pull off a 5 point win in the Massachusetts governor’s race. In effect, Romney’s win represented a 26-point over-performance relative to party identification, not far behind Christie’s 29-point over-performance.

Yet Democrats controlled nearly 85 percent of the statehouse after Romney’s election. The implementation of Romney’s reform agenda was muted; state government spending increased by about 20 percent during Romney’s only term. Furthermore, Romney’s blue state win in Massachusetts did not benefit the GOP at all in the presidential race, as President George W. Bush lost the state by 25 points (to a Bay Stater, himself, Sen. John Kerry).

Of course, even more impressive than Romney’s 2002 performance was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s crushing 17-point victory in the 2003 recall election in deeply blue California. Schwarzenegger repeated this feat in 2006, defeating his Democratic opponent by nearly 17 points once again. Keep in mind that in 2002 Democrats enjoyed a nearly 7-point party identification advantage; this increased to an 11-point party advantage in 2006. Schwarzenegger’s dual wins represented a 24- and 28-point over-performance, respectively.

Yet, in 2004 (the first general election following the California recall election) and in 2006, the Republicans failed to gain a single seat in the California Assembly or Senate. In 2013, California remains mired in long-term debt. Bankrupt municipalities and foolhardy regulatory schemes persist as the Republican super-minority struggles to regain relevance.

Like Romney and Schwarzenegger, Chris Christie’s electoral landslide failed to translate into gains at the statehouse. Uncertified election results show that despite Christie’s landslide personal victory, the Republicans failed to gain even a single state senate seat — stuck at 16 out of 40 seats yet again. In the state assembly, Republicans managed to gain just two seats and remain woefully outnumbered 46 to 34.

As a result, New Jersey remains unfriendly to business growth thanks to its high-tax, high-regulatory climate. In fact, New Jersey dropped from 30th to 42nd in CNBC’s Top States for Business rankings during his first term. Simply put, Christie’s personal aura propelled him to a huge victory; but Christie failed to affect a change in the composition of the legislature capable of implementing his most significant reforms.

The inability of Gov. Christie to expand his appeal beyond himself is disappointing. Like Romney and Schwarzenegger, Christie’s broader agenda will likely be stifled. Reform-minded activists desire policy changes rather than to simply share space as figureheads of the Republican Party.

The similarities between the results in California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey will likely generate increased skepticism toward a Christie presidential candidacy. Like Romney and Schwarzenegger, Gov. Chris Christie has no coattails.

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